Breaking the Stigma – Celebrating and Rewarding Biliteracy

Did you know that other countries have nurses, lawyers, scientists, psychologists, and writers, to name a few?  And that many of these professionals learned their profession in their native language without knowing any English? Sounds like a silly and somewhat sarcastic question, doesn’t it? And it is, of course. Learning in a language other than English has nothing to do with a student’s ability to learn the theories and skills needed to become proficient in a career. France has psychologists, Spain has nurses, India has lawyers, Mexico has scientists, Russia has doctors and so on. In fact, many language learners are actually college or close to college level in their own language when they arrive here; they just can’t speak English. So why are English language learners so often treated as if they are uneducated?

For years, the United States has treated the use of any language other than English as a liability. History reminds us of a dark time when students were physically and emotionally punished for speaking in their native tongue. Parents scolded their children when they didn’t speak English because they wanted their kids to grow up “American.” Learning English meant unlearning your native tongue. In fact, in the 1960s at Pan American College (now the University of Texas), Chicano students were forced to take speech classes with the sole purpose of eliminating their accent.  And while the physical abuse may have been removed from education, there is still an “English only” movement which continues to create a stigma for non-native English speakers.

Yes, learning English is important; especially if you are going to live in the United States. But as an English language learner, you should not have to give up your native tongue in the process. In fact, those who lose their native language, may lose the ability to communicate with family, and lose part of their cultural identity. This can lead to a feeling of isolation and loss. Some feel like they don’t fit into either culture.

Learning English through ESL can be very frustrating, especially for adult students. Many that enroll in classes in college are required to take several levels of English before they are ever allowed to learn college-level material. In addition, many take classes on a part-time basis because they are trying to balance family, school and work (which is often low-paying due to the lack of proficiency in English.)  Imagine how frustrating it must be. You want to learn about business. But you will not be allowed to take a single business class until you are proficient in English, which can take years; especially if you are part-time.  It is no wonder that retention can become an issue. ESL burnout is a very real thing.

It’s time to lessen the barriers for our ESL students and at the same time promote the asset of biliteracy. Biliteracy is not new. In fact, it is very common for students around the world to have learned English in addition to their native language.  The United States is just beginning to join the global community in recognizing the benefits of biliteracy. We are seeing more and more dual language programs opening in K-12 schools around the country. Graduates earning their seal of biliteracy are now receiving college credits for this work. We are also seeing more job postings looking for biliterate employees.

So, what can we do to assist our ESL population in their quest to learn English, while also encouraging the continued development of their native language? Rather than requiring the completion of all ESL classes first, we can offer contextualized ESL classes combined with college level classes that students take in their native language. In this model, we foster the use of both languages.

At Mount Wachusett Community College, we are launching a business administration certificate program following this model. Intermediate ESL students will be able to complete 24 credits of major courses in Spanish in combination with supporting ESL classes. Each semester, their ESL co-requisite class will use the materials from their major classes to work on their English reading, writing, and comprehension. Their final course for the certificate will be ENG101 College Writing I. Once they complete, they can continue in the business administration associate’s degree program (in English); having already completed half of the degree. While they may still end up taking the same number of credits, their college work begins earlier and in a much more familiar language. The ESL then reinforces the concepts in English. At completion, they will have knowledge in both languages.

But being a student means so much more than just textbooks and tests. It can be a stressful, confusing, and emotional time. It is important that we also provide the supports necessary to assist students in any way we can. By hiring Hispanic faculty and staff, we are surrounding students with people with whom they can identify and that understand them. Increasing a student’s comfort level and alleviating undue stress will help the student have a good first college experience and help retention. Upon completion we want to celebrate their achievements and encourage them to help others do the same.

I am very proud of this endeavor. It is a great start, but only a start. I look forward to the day we can create programs in multiple native languages.